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Drop defamation claim against human rights defender, says Human Rights Watch

Kadyrov should drop defamation claim

Lawsuit should not distract from investigation into murder of rights advocate Natalia Estemirova

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Moscow, September 9, 2009 - The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, should drop his defamation claim against a prominent human rights defender who said Kadyrov was responsible for the murder of the human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova, Human Rights Watch said today. The Russian authorities should not allow the suit to distract from their responsibility to identify those responsible for the killing and to hold them responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

In preliminary civil proceedings scheduled to begin on September 10, 2009, Oleg Orlov, chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Center, a leading Russian human rights organization, will face accusations that statements he made following Estemirova's murder on July 15 defamed Kadyrov. Kadyrov is suing for 10 million rubles (approximately US$320,000) for alleged damages to his "honor and dignity." He had also filed criminal libel charges against Orlov, but on September 3, the prosecutor's office announced that it would not bring the charges.

"President Kadyrov should drop this case and let the investigations into the murder of Estemirova and other activists take their course," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "As someone in public office, Kadyrov should not use the law to chill public debate about matters of serious public concern. In these circumstances, the best defense for all is a truly independent investigation that conforms with Russia's human rights obligations."

If the case proceeds and the court is called upon to determine whether Orlov's statements were defamatory, it will need to take into account the standards applicable under Russia's human rights obligations, especially the need to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said. The threshold for criticism of a public official is much higher than for a private individual, Human Rights Watch said.

Estemirova, a leading Chechnya researcher for Memorial, was abducted outside her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, on July 15 and was found shot dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later the same day.

The circumstances of Estemirova's murder, along with a pattern of threats against her, Memorial, and investigative journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya, as well as the nature of her investigations into official abuses, all point to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder.

Human Rights Watch urged President Dmitri Medvedev to use the opportunity of renewed public attention to Estemirova's murder to clarify his commitment to ensuring that the investigation pursues all possible avenues to solve the crime. In remarks made on July 16, Medvedev dismissed the possibility of official involvement in the murder, which suggested that limitations had been placed on the investigation.

Human rights groups have documented serious human rights violations committed by law enforcement and security personnel under Kadyrov's de facto control. These violations, committed in a counterinsurgency campaign, include illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial executions, and home burnings of individuals they accuse of being involved in or supportive of the insurgency. Those who document and publicize these crimes have faced violence, threats, and harassment.

"The most important signal of Russia's commitment to bring Estemirova's killers to justice is whether the investigation is seriously considering the possibility of official involvement," Cartner said. "Russia knows that in accordance with its international legal obligations the investigation cannot exclude the possibility of involvement by officials in Chechnya, including at the highest levels."

Estemirova's murder was followed three weeks later by the killings of Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, civic activists who worked for Save the Generation, a charity that provides humanitarian assistance to war victims. Sadulayeva and Dzhabrailov were abducted from their Grozny office by law-enforcement personnel on August 10 and found shot the next day. Also, in the weeks since Estemirova's murder, several Memorial staff who work on Chechnya have faced threats and intimidation.

"This chain of murders and persecution of activists won't be broken unless the Russian government brings to justice perpetrators of human rights violations in the region," said Cartner. "The investigation needs to hold to account not only the people who carried out the three killings, but also the people who ordered them."

Human Rights Watch said that the suit against Orlov should serve as a reminder to Russia's international partners of the urgent need to press Russia for an effective, credible, and transparent investigation into Estemirova's murder carried out at the highest levels.

The European Union and the United States should further urge the Russian government to demonstrate its commitment to openness and accountability by securing immediate and unfettered access to Russia, including to the North Caucasus, for international monitors who have long sought such access. These include the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly rapporteur on legal remedies for human rights violations in the North Caucasus, and UN special rapporteurs on torture, extrajudicial executions, and human rights defenders.

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